Hearing Aide: Yonder Mountain String Band ‘Black Sheep’

Yonder Mountain String Band will release their 12th album, Black Sheep on June 16, with a new sound and two new additions to the band. This album is unlike previous albums with a Yonder 2.0 feel with Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff making their recording debut. Black Sheep is Yonder’s move from a jamgrass boy band to a traditional sounding bluegrass ensemble.

There is no doubt that change and growth have effected this band in a very positive way. By adding Allie on the violin Yonder has embraced the power of a soulful female voice matched with her epic jams. Her violin was the missing link in their music previously in my opinion, I have felt this way since the beginning. Allie does a remarkable job of adding in her feminine touch.

While Jolliff is also a fantastic addition to the band, his mandolin playing is a completely different sound than Austin’s — making the transition virtually seamless without actually trying to ‘replace’ Austin or to duplicate his style. Jolliff brings a highly technical but light sounding vibe to the group.

Another change heard on Black Sheep is the lead that bassist Ben Kaufman has taken in many of the songs. No longer will you hear the energy that was once shared by Kaufman and former mandolinist Jeff Austin. The energy is still there, it’s just headed in a different direction, a direction in which I am happy to follow as a long time fan.

Black Sheep’s opening track is titled “Insult and an Elbow,” is a precursor to how Kaufman takes lead vocals to another level. He told RollingStone this is a reflection on his younger days when he was “… drinking and smoking for all the wrong reasons. But it is also written from the perspective of a person who is on the brink of a moment of growth and self-awareness.” This album most definitely debuts that growth.

On the album’s third track Yonder Mountain hits another cover out of the park musically, once again. The cover of punk rock band the Buzzcocks, “Ever Fallen in Love with Someone You Shouldn’t Have,” is reminiscent of their cover of the Misfits, “20 Eyes in My Head”. YMSB has a knack for taking these punk songs and masterfully turning them into bluegrass jams.

Bringing listeners back to a more recognized sound is “Analee,” reminiscent of Kaufman’s Bolton Stretch series — with less boyish shenanigans. He speaks of true love and deep heartache. Jolliff’s mandolin is gentle and a light presence.

“Landfall” is an Adam Aijala song. For the first time on the album, Kaufman has taken a backseat on vocals and lends his signature thumping bass line. Again, this song is a much more mature version of this band.

The songs on this album have a sense of deep thought and maturity, a refection of their lives — becoming men, husbands, fathers, has brought YMSB to a new level.

Finally on “I’m lost,” Allie starts light and feminine in her playing, then jamming hard to the end, a true moment for her to shine on this album. Allie also makes an impression with her soulful vocals on “Love Before You Can’t”.

It seems as though these boys have gained and lost love and friendships over the last year and half and they are expressing themselves lyrically in a much deeper philosophical way. This album definately is not a band of young bluegrass boys paving the path for the jam grass scene and telling stories of smoking weed and drinkin beer, they have grown up, they are men — and one woman.

As much as I love the new sound, this isn’t a Yonder album that I would jump out of my seat to dance to. It’s more for listening to in its entirety on a road trip to nowhere.

This album sounds like a romance novel reads. Given the level of energy that has been happening at Yonder shows lately, this album creates a very low-key vibe. One that makes you think, about your own love and regrets and how we all grow out of the ashes like a Phoenix and we carry on after tragedy, we don’t stay the same, we grow towards the light. YMSB has opened up their entire souls on this album while simultaneously exhibiting remarkable maturity in their musicianship.

Black Sheep will be available in stores and on iTunes on June 16 but you can get it now online and at tour merch shops.

Also worth noting is the updated website for the band which now includes bios for Allie Kral and Jake Jolliff, officially making them a part of Yonder Mountain String Band. Cheers!

 Key Tracks: Insult and an Elbow, Analee, I’m Lost, Around You